William Dalrymple’s “The Anarchy” – book review

Did I really ‘read’ William Dalrymple’s The Anarchy?

I let it waft around me, listening on Audible as I cooked dinner and I cleared the kitchen. That is surely not the reading it deserves. I should have had a pen and a notebook open, and occasionally a map, just to locate the places

On the other hand, at least I know how to pronounce the names of the historical figures described in it, even though I would be at a complete loss if anyone asked me to spell them.

The writing was clear and engaging. The subject matter was completely foreign to me, but I did not feel out-of my-depth – even if truth be told, I was not listening as attentively as I should have been.

But I still learned a great deal, and so I thought perhaps it is worth trying to write down the things I learned, just in case I forget them.

I had always thought of the British conquest of India, as similar to that of the conquistadores in South America. Quick and aided by a huge military and technological power. I was wrong.

Utterly and completely wrong.

When Britain first comes in touch with the great Mughal Empire, it was relatively inconsequential. King James I sent his ambassador Sir Thomas Roe to the Emperor Jahangir in the early 17th century – and we have this magnificent painting to remind us of this fact (clue: King James is imagined in the bottom left corner). The painting title is “Jahangir Preferring a Sufi Shaikh to Kings”. It depicts the Emperor preferring the company of a religious man to the company of Kings who have come to pay him homage.

Bichitr - Jahangir Preferring a Sufi Shaikh to Kings, from the St. Petersburg album - Google Art Project

In fact, for a long time, the English were not even the dominant Europan force on the Indian peninsula. That role had been played for a long time by the French – who often served as mercenaries in the armies of the local princes.

While reading The Anarchy, I learned of the existence of my favourite 18th-century Nawab of Bengal, Alivardi Khan, who was not only a wise ruler but also very fond of Persian cats. The French gave him two, the English gave him one.

I was relieved to hear that Warren Hastings, Jane Austen’s relative, was by far one of the most sympathetic Company governors – educated in the languages and the customs of India. He was interested in translating the Bhagavad Gita. Not to say, that he couldn’t have done better, but there were definitely worse than him

Robert Clive – for example. In Dalrymple’s narrative, was utter scum. A greedy war-monger, who hated India and its people – and was truly passionate only about money. The story of Robert Clive’s suicide seems likely to me to have inspired the death of Merdle in Little Dorrit.  I did not go off and research this, so please don’t take my word for it.

I also learned that the British conquest of India was greatly affected by the American revolution. Before it, British men were allowed to marry local women. But the East India Company became scared that British men settled in India might assimilate with the locals and form their own ruling class, independent of the EIC. Therefore, intermarriage was banned in an attempt to keep the British men away from foreign and possibly rebellious influences.

I finally understood why Napoleon and the British squabbled so much over Egypt  – and it was because Napoleon was thinking of using Egypt as a way to get across to India. Napoleon’s ally in India was Tipu Sultan. The man who commissioned Tipu’s Tiger otherwise known as the musical toy depicting a tiger mauling a British soldier that is currently in the Victoria and Albert Museum. No wonder the British were getting nervous.

Tipu's Tiger front view 2006AH4173.jpg
By Victoria and Albert Museum https://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O61949/mechanical-organ-automaton-tippoos-tiger/, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

On a more personal note, as a Polish girl, I felt an affinity to the fate of the Mughal empire, brought down not only by the strength of its enemies but also by its internal quarreling. If only the local rulers had not felt it necessary to employ the English in their own affairs, everything would have been fine.

It’s like the mistake the Polish Kings made with the Teutonic knights – give someone special privileges over your land once – and they will basically never leave…

I really loved learning more about the history of India. It made me feel very small and ignorant – but at least I was trying to fix my ignorance!

I have William Dalrymple’s The White Mughals on my bookshelf – and I definitely feel that I will be reading it sooner rather than later 🙂

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